Paris Streetcar Vehicles

Boundaries of Tram Operation Extended Beyond the Catenary

Alstom’s STEEM system, under testing in Paris, will allow vehicles to run between stops without a catenary.

In January, Bombardier announced the development of a new traction system called Primove that will allow trams to receive power wirelessly by communicating with circuits buried underneath the track. The implementation of this technology would allow streetcars to travel through cities at moderate speeds without requiring the construction of overhead catenaries, whose wires are often seen as the major downside of modern electric rail transit. With its new STEEM system, competitor Alstom may be able to offer the same advantages through battery power storage — at a far lower cost.

Primove has a major advantage — the fact that its power devices are buried — over a similar Alstom system currently being used in the city of Bordeaux, which relies on an exposed third rail that is only activated as a tram passes over it. This means that Primove could theoretically be used in colder, wetter climes, places where the Alstom third rail system is likely to run into trouble. But both of these technologies are significantly more expensive to build and implement than traditional catenary, meaning that they’re only likely to be used in the most historically-sensitive areas where overhead wires are seen as too distracting.

If implemented, Alstom’s new STEEM system*, on the other hand, will require less catenary wire and no underground construction; it simply requires the upgrading of existing tram vehicles. Trains will be equipped with large batteries connected to their motors that will be charged each time the vehicle brakes, much like the way a Toyota Prius hybrid refills its battery. In addition, the trams will be able to benefit from charging during 20-second station dwell times, where trains will benefit from a catenary; theoretically, the system wouldn’t require the use of the catenary between stations.

Alstom’s technology is a major advance, and it could cut down investment costs in light rail projects significantly in areas where stations are close enough to ensure that trains can move between them without running out of power. In short, it means that transit agencies could install tracks without the relatively expensive overhead catenaries between stations, putting them only above stops, where they’ll serve as recharging units alone. This is a bigger advance than Bombardier’s more exciting announcement earlier this year because it will result in less expensive construction and operations costs.

Though the city of Nice in the south of France already has a first generation version of this system, allowing trains to run without catenaries in the city’s central square, STEEM allows for quick recharging and use throughout a vehicle’s journey, something not previously possible. The system will undergo testing on two sections of Paris’ T3 light rail line, at first using one vehicle that will simply retract its pantograph in the testing sections and operate autonomously even as the other trains on the line continue to use the catenary there.

Alstom’s technology is not yet advanced yet to work on fast-moving American light rail systems, which typically have station stops up to a mile apart, likely too far for its battery capacity to handle. Whether the system can handle the incredible wastefulness of air conditioning — something not present in Paris — is a different question. But it could be particularly useful for streetcar networks, such as the one planned in Washington, D.C., where a congressional ban on overhead wires is still in effect — something that could likely be circumvented if the wires were only present at stations. In cities like Portland where light rail stations downtown are just blocks apart, the technology could mean the ability to get rid of overhead wires in central sections of the network.

* Système de tramway à efficacité energétique maximisée (maximized energy efficiency tramway system)

Disney Vehicles

Walt Disney World Monorail Crashes, Shattering Dream

But it’s been creating all the wrong impressions about transit since 1959.

Early yesterday morning, two Walt Disney World Monorail trains slammed into one another, killing a conductor but injuring none of the passengers on board. It was the first accident on the resort’s primary transportation system since it opened in Florida in 1971. A similar operation at Disneyland in California has been shuttling families around the park since 1959 with no fatal accidents thus far — though there have been a few injuries over the years..

If measured by ridership, the Orlando monorail would be the United States’ ninth heaviest-used rapid transit system*, ahead of Los Angeles’ Red and Purple lines. Roughly 150,000 people use the network each day in America’s most visited travel destination, meaning that it plays an important role in shaping the American vision about how transit should work. Walt Disney’s influence on the popular imagination extends far beyond transit, of course, but the crash of one of the park’s trains raises the question of whether Mr. Disney has shaped a reasonable narrative for American society to follow.

In some ways, of course, the monorail set an intriguing precedent: it allowed a resort “city” to function without the use of private automobiles. In Florida, the trains travel directly between the Magic Kingdom, three hotels, a transportation center, and Epcot Park; in California, trains travel between Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom and the false-urban Downtown Disney. In each case, the system is convenient, getting passengers quickly and relatively easily between the park’s major destinations. It is also elevated, meaning that passengers get a view of the park as they arrive or depart, enhancing the excitement of the resort itself.

Disney’s transportation work — especially around Downtown Disney, as artificial as it is — does play on the idea of transit-oriented development. The stations aren’t close to everything in the park, but tourists can walk from the monorail to rides and shops in a comfortable amount of time, just like transit should work in a normal city. This is a significant counterpoint to the car culture that orients everyday American suburbs, in which people assume that they can drive to the front doors of the homes, businesses, and shopping locations without taking more than a few steps along the way. The monorails also encourage the idea that it is possible to ride in a vehicle with other people without suffering, a fear that prevents many from choosing public transportation.

But the fact that more Americans have probably ridden the Walt Disney monorail systems than have chosen to take advantage of their local transit offerings is problematic. That’s because Disney presents a space-age vision for what public transportation should be, and it’s that fantasy that many Americans want in their trains and buses, not the mundane services like light rail and buses that most communities can actually implement. Meanwhile, Disney can offer the convenience of rapid transit in a safe, well-monitored environment, something difficult to do day-in, day-out in a real city.

The most damaging effect of the Disney monorail is the pervasive idea among virtually everyone other than transportation people that it represents the ultimate in transit technology. That’s why cries for “monorails!” come up at every turn when communities consider new transportation systems, even though monorails are consistently more expensive and less reliable than their two-track counterparts. It’s a mystery why people find the idea of the single, elevated track so exciting, but Disney’s example may be one explanation.

Similarly, the Disney environment, in which everyone is a paying — and, therefore, an acceptable — guest, is completely inapplicable to actual urban environments. These parks encourage the idea that we should expect our transit systems to be clean as a whistle and full of kind, wonderful people, two expectations that are impossible to fulfill in a society where a significant percentage of the population lives below the poverty line. Urban transit systems aren’t usually clean, and they do sometimes have wackos on board, but they work. The fact that people want the Disney experience when they get on board is the problem, because they’re put off by the reality of smells and trash, all the while missing out on the significant commuting and environmental advantages of normal buses and trains.

Disney’s monorails will undoubtedly go back into operation in a few days, and they’ll continue to provide the kind of transportation experience that their guests can only dream about in their hometowns. If only we could take the excitement people feel about boarding the resort transit systems and funnel it into a popular push to improve and expand local public transportation. With normal people on board, and with two rails instead of one, urban mass transit won’t ever provide the Disney experience, but more investment would decrease the perceived quality differences between the two.

* For clarification: by rapid transit, I mean heavy rail (metro or subway) lines. Los Angeles serves about 135,000 daily trips on its light rail lines every day, so it has a larger ridership overall than Disney if you include light rail.

Streetcar Toronto Vehicles

Toronto Secures Streetcar Contract — After Exaggerated Fight With Ottawa

New Bombardier trains will be delivered beginning in 2012.

At an emergency meeting last week, Toronto’s city council approved a major new financial commitment to an April contract designed to replace the city’s fleet of aging streetcars. The deal, which comes after the federal government announced that it wouldn’t help pay for the vehicles, requires Toronto to delay several planned capital improvements.

Unlike the United States, which has standard formulas established by the FTA to ensure transit systems nationwide adequate funds for capital maintenance and replacement, Canada’s municipalities must negotiate with Ottawa whenever they need major aid to improve public transportation. Toronto has recently benefited from a major infusion of national and province-level funds for new light rail and subway lines. These projects will make the city one of the most transit-oriented in North America.

But when Toronto Mayor David Miller agreed in April to a C$1.2 billion deal with Bombardier to buy 200 new streetcars, he had no such assurance from the federal government, even though he assured the city that Ottawa would be willing to commit to a third of the cost. Ontario Province is providing one third of the cost.

When applying for Canada’s national stimulus funds, Mr. Miller asked for C$416 million for the vehicles — and nothing else. The problem is that the stimulus was designed for projects that will be largely completed by 2011; the streetcars are scheduled for staged delivery between 2012 and 2018. Mr. Miller hoped that intense dislike of the ruling conservatives in Toronto, the nation’s largest city, would force Premier Stephen Harper to make a concession. Mr. Harper didn’t bite, to the dismay of New Democrat (left) MPs in the Canadian parliament. On the other hand, the national government did say C$300 million of aid to projects such as sidewalk construction would likely be forthcoming.

Mr. Miller’s attempt to use the stimulus for streetcar funds clearly wasn’t reasonable, and he probably should have waited for Mr. Harper to simply agree to fund the vehicles from a general source, something that would have likely occurred considering the government’s recent attempts to placate Toronto by throwing transit money at the city at high speeds. Now the city council has reluctantly approved doubling the city’s previous commitment to the vehicle replacement by a vote of 36 to 6. Some other major transit projects in the city will now be delayed, including the replacement of several hundred buses.

The failure to get federal government stimulus funds for the streetcars could be framed as a loss for Mr. Miller, but it further isolates Ottawa’s ruling conservatives from Toronto, whose greater metro area represents 25% of the nation’s population. Mr. Harper’s recent efforts in support of new transit lines in the city now seem less prominent, as the conservatives have once again been framed as the enemy in the fight for a better commute.

The New Democrats, who Mr. Miller supports, can claim that they did what they had to do to get the new trains, even though the municipal opposition claims that Mr. Miller’s April decision to order the streetcars was an attempt to buy something without the money to back it up. To many, the mayor will look like a savior, and when the trains start arriving in 2012, the left will be thanked, not the conservatives. In the long-run, the transit-supportive left will do better among the Toronto electorate and conservatives will have to attempt to buy their votes once again with more funds for public transportation.

From the U.S. perspective, the conflict between Toronto and Ottawa seems hard to believe because American mayors rarely demand funds directly from the federal government as a sort of political punishment; conflicts generally arise in the Congress, where senators and representatives fight over earmarks and formula provisions. In Canada, though, full-bore conflict between competing political ideologies at several levels of the federal system has become an acceptable way to promote and fund better mass transit. Perhaps American mayors should attempt to emulate this game — carefully.


Electrification Suddenly in Vogue Again

Canadian, British, American railroad officials fighting to replace diesel locomotives.

With efforts to combat climate change ramping up and ridership on public transportation increasing steadily, electrification of main-line rail corridors is in. Yet, though railroads in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. are studying a conversion to electric traction for passenger and freight trainsets, few corridors are actually being readied for conversion from diesel operation. And even if electrification occurs, rail operators need to be assured that their electricity providers are carbon-neutral if the full advantages of traction operation are to be realized.

Railway electrification has a number of major advantages, including reduced environmental impact, faster running times, and lower operating costs. These benefits are clear in the case of true high-speed rail, which is nearly impossible with diesel locomotives. But freight carriers see improved operations with electrification as well, seeing eliminated fuel transport costs; the simultaneous operation of high-speed passenger and freight trains on the same corridor is more feasible when the passenger corridor is electrified as well. In addition, the numerous negative effects of diesel locomotives — notably heavy local-point air pollution — often stand in the way of rail service expansion in urban communities, where people are understandably hesitant to allow significant pollution.

In the United States, with few passenger carriers possessing adequate finances to pay for such conversion, the freight industry is taking the lead. Norfolk Southern, a major transporter, is studying electrification of heavily used corridors that could be profitable for use by passenger services. Similarly, BNSF Railways has similarly investigated electrification of many of the major corridors that it controls in the western parts of the country. Freight trains could operate along both electric and non-electric corridors using dual-mode locomotives much like those used by several commuter rail lines that provide service to New York Penn Station. This would not only provide carriers the ability to increase capacity and service in congested areas but also allow through trains to less densely utilized areas of the country. Freight operators want to orchestrate their involvement in electrification with the rebuilding of the American power grid, a major priority of the Obama Administration; new “smart” power lines could be constructed alongside tracks. As American rail investment expands, electrification of freight rail corridors with a focus on well-used lines could be a first step.

Indeed, in California, the use of traction power along the Caltrain corridor between San Jose and San Francisco may be one of the first completed elements of that state’s high-speed program. The project’s construction would require include the purchase of all-new electric locomotives for commuter rail trains that would share the corridor with fast trains; freight trains using the line would presumably also be required to convert their operations.

Canada’s two largest cities are considering the electrification of their commuter rail networks. In Montréal, the AMT regional transit network and Hydro-Québec, that province’s primary power provider, are working together to replace the diesel trains currently used on four of the city’s routes. Hydro-Québec has an incentive to pay for the conversion, as its power plants would be primary beneficiaries of expanded use. The majority of Québec Province’s power comes — unsurprisingly — from dams, so trains would be operated using renewable power. The Deux-Montagnes line, which is electrically operated, has proven more effective than the city’s other diesel lines; conversion of 250 km of diesel operations would cost upwards of $300 million Canadian over the course of a 15 year period beginning in 2011.

Toronto, which has no such similarly strong existing network of renewable power distribution, is nevertheless also considering electrification of its GO Transit commuter network, a project pushed by local citizen group the Clean Train Coalition. The city’s network is expanding rapidly, with one line through the Georgetown neighborhood expected to see 300 to 500 trains a day in a few years once an airport express begins operation. Yet the diesel trains steaming through the community would significantly increase pollution levels, so electrification is a viable mitigating option.

In the United Kingdom, ridership has increased 60% since 1994, but capacity is close to its limit. The construction of a new high-speed west coast line is a long-term option, but improvements in the meantime will allow more trains to run on the same tracks. Electrification on corridors such as those between London and Cardiff and between Edinburgh and Glasgow would be economically viable, according to a series of industry studies on the state of the U.K. rail network. Incorporation of commuter rail lines into the Crossrail project through central London would also require moving to traction power. Overall, the country seems ready to push for electrification on any commercially viable corridor.

Of course, the most promising advantage of using electric power to move rail cars has little to do with efficiency or speed improvements; rather, electric propulsion allows trains to become carbon-neutral, something airplanes will never be able to claim in the near future. If we are to encourage using electricity to power trains, we must ensure that the electricity used is as clean as possible. Building an American electric high-speed rail network — no matter how time competitive with airline travel it might be — would be ecologically disastrous if the United States continues its dependence on coal, whose use will never be “clean.” We must not deny the fact that airplanes are more environmentally efficient than trains if the latter are powered by polluting sources.

Yet there are alternatives that would make electrification a clean option. In France, where nuclear power represents 80% of power production and traditional renewables another 10%, TGV high-speed trains operate at 200 mph with virtually no contribution to climate change. In Spain and Germany, wind mills provide an increasing percentage of overall power generation. Along with electrification of rail networks, U.S., U.K., and Canadian utilities must increase investment in alternative power technologies that will reduce their respective carbon footprints. Taking that step would make installing traction power on the railways a win-win situation for everyone.

DOT Vehicles

Damning Report on State of Good Repair Needs Released

» Federal Transit Administration’s study indicates that the nation’s largest rail systems have a long way to go before they’re ready for prime time.

In December 2007, several senators asked the Federal Transit Administration to study the capital needs of the nation’s largest rail systems, and the government agency has released its report today. To put it bluntly, its conclusions are damning and indicate that the United States must invest far more in maintaining its existing transit infrastructure than it is currently, or suffer the consequences of rotting tracks, vehicles, and stations.

Notably, the report indicates that the seven systems studied (Chicago’s CTA, Boston’s MBTA, New York’s MTA, New Jersey Transit, San Francisco’s BART, Philadelphia’s SEPTA, and Washington’s WMATA) have a total $50 billion backlog of repairs necessary to upgrade equipment to a state of good repair. Based on current funding, that backlog will stretch on for decades if nothing is done. The existing fixed guideway modernization program provides about $5.4 billion annually for capital upgrades on the nation’s older lines at an 80% federal share.

Though the report does not provide information by agency, it does give information about needs across modes and assets for all systems, as the charts below show:



The majority of needs are for heavy rail (a $37.1 billion backlog), but the report indicates that the current fixed guideway modernization formula inappropriately overfunds the commuter rail system and newer light rail systems, to an extent that the “older rail” cities like New York or Philadelphia are being underfunded and are incapable of meeting their capital needs. In fact, the modernization program only addresses a very small percentage of overall requirements to meet a state of good repair, as documented in the chart below:


The report recommends that the federal government increase spending on funding repairs to existing fixed guideway systems, arguing that it remains necessary for these agencies to upgrade their vehicles, tracks, and stations to an adequate quality. Importantly, the study suggests that the current formula for distributing funds – based on an insane 7-tier process – is inappropriate, and that more money be distributed directly to those agencies most in need of improvements.

More importantly, though, the FTA suggests that the Congress authorize an average of $4.2 billion more annually over the next twelve years with a temporary state of good repair fund (alternatives also provided: $8.3 billion annually over six years or $2.5 billion annually over twenty). That would require the government to commit to a total average of $10.1 billion in funds annually for the program. Thereafter, once repairs are complete, the report suggests that the program should be designed to continue funding agencies at a level of $5.9 billion annually.

The FTA’s report is well-timed, because it comes just as Congress is considering the replacement for the current transportation bill. I hope that members of the House and Senate will look seriously at this information and considerably increase funding for fixed guideway modernization.

All charts above from Federal Transit Administration study